A Catholic upbringing..

Tim Dunlop has a very nice post up at Road to Surfdom, about his Catholic education
Reading it, and the comments people made on it, made me reflect once again on just what it is that my own Catholic education gave me, and the tensions and gifts it bequeathed to me.
My experience is different from Tim’s, to some degree, because of personal background, but in other ways I totally understood the atmosphere he recounts. I went to parish schools in primary school and then for high school first to a Brigidine order nuns’ school–at which I only lasted half a year. Due to some terrible bullying I was subjected to(from a horrible kid), my parents removed me and sent me to a school run by nuns of the Good Samaritan order(part of the Benedictine group).
It was a wonderful school, one I still remember with gratitude and which in fact I have happily returned to a couple of times, as a visiting author and guest speaker(and to which my sister Camille, a painter, is returning to soon to create painted windows and mosaics).
The whole atmosphere of the school was one of opportunity, of curiosity, of the encouragement of creativity, and intellectual exploration as well. It was progressive in that it believed in the advancement of girls, and the flowering of their talent, and the opportunity to reach as far as they could; it was traditional, in that it held quite strongly to the cathechism and the New Testament (and Tim, I’d have to say that Catholics have never been big on the Old Testament, at any time in history, and have always concentrated on the New–something Protestants have always reproached us for.)
I found the learning-by-rote of the green cathechism extremely boring in some ways, but it was also a good thing to challenge in class–which you were allowed to do. Its rigid structure actually made it easier for you to puzzle out your own unorthodox responses and notions, whereas the much more story-driven, poetic and epic atmosphere of both Old and New Testaments is much more overawing and affecting, emotionally.

And when I got bored in religion classes, I would actually read the Old Testament, which I didn’t know very well till then, and was swept up in the extraordinary metaphorical richness of it.
The New Testament also yielded up some amazing things. One of the often overlooked aspects of Jesus is that he was a born storyteller and poet. It is one of the reasons, I suppose why I feel so close to the essence of Christianity; because in his life but also in his words, Jesus the man understood the heart of the world with a poet’s gift of language, and a novelist’s understanding of psychology. These visions of Jesus were a long way from my parents’ understandings, and indeed from my teachers’; but our school still gave us the space and the freedom to explore them, and for that openness, and that trust, I will always be grateful.
Ideas mattered in our school; but so did imagination and creativity. For me, too, being at that school meant that I had another space in which to freely develop and explore my burgeoning talent. At home, I was encouraged greatly, and indeed enriched by my parents’ wide if maverick and opinionated knowledge of the world, people and the arts. But spiritually I would have been dragooned much more if I hadn’t had the escape valve of school. I was educated both in the way Tim describes–the post Vatican II understandings–and also in the pre-Vatican II ones, through my parents’ own ideas and association with the Latin Mass movement. This kind of tension was, I think, invaluable for the growth of my own gift; and I think it’s quite interesting that in our small Latin Mass congregation at East Lindfield, several of the young people went on to make a living–and indeed even a name–in the arts.
All of us had to live with that tension of tradition and modernity, and I think it shapes a certain kind of individuality which can either make you rigid or alternatively extremely flexible. It certainly didn’t turn me into an atheist; as I’ve said in another post, I’ve had a very strong sense of the presence of God as far back as I can remember, and that’s something that is at the centre of me, and that nothing can destroy. I’ve never been temperamentally a ‘joiner’, and the ‘club’ aspect of religion–you follow these rules, you’re part of the club–has never appealed to me. But religion itself, the reaching of humanity towards God, however you conceive of God; that is a central part of who I am. And it does manifest itself in Catholic dress, in Catholic imagery and understandings, because I do identify, imaginatively, strongly with it.
One thing I think you can really say about Catholicism is that it is so richly full of images, symbols, metaphors and amazing artistic and poetic understandings that it is the perfect brand of Christianity for an artist to grow up in. Even the tension is important, for an artistic imagination needs challenge too. Because it is also an emotional religion, unlike, say, established Protestantism(though not the evangelical kind, of course)it fulfills deep needs which I think too many people forget about when they try to argue only for an intellectual, logical, ethical or social brand of religion. You need the balance, of course; and there’s always been the intellectual side of Catholicism, the kind often represented by the Jesuits, for instance.
The sex thing that so many lapsed Catholics seem to worry about re Catholic education never bothered me. That’s because probably we were French Catholics and rather uninhibited about those things; my parents found some of the prudish Irish Catholic stuff extremely silly, even ridiculous(the ultimate insult in France!) Many of us ‘wogs’ had the same experience–our Italian and Lebanese friends at school similarly blithely ignored the attempts to make us feel weird about sex, and indeed we all used to laugh like drains at the kinds of prudish things that the occasional nun would say, such as the famous ‘Don’t wear patent leather shoes at dances, girls, because the boys might see your knickers reflected in them!’ Needless to say, this made us eager to try out the experiment! In fact, the emphasis on sex and its supposed sin can actually give the whole thing an atmosphere of wonderful piquancy and zest. Too much tolerance can also actually mean indifference and apathy, especially for young people. Who wants to have your behaviour wholeheartedly approved by all the ‘wise old heads’?
As Tim mentions in his piece too, this was not a time when the Church was fighting against science. At school, we were given no biases against it; unlike, say, Protestant fundamentalists or Jehovah’s Witnesses, we were neither told that the Bible was the literal truth nor that science was in conflict with religion. We were taught the theory of evolution without a second thought; why should the notion of a creator interfere with the notion of evolution?
So I’m raising my glass to the nuns and lay staff of Mt St Benedict’s! It was a good education, and one that helped and encouraged me. But then so did my family, including the experience with the collection of mavericks, doughty rebels and oddballs that was the Latin Mass Society.

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blank
2022 years ago

It’s funny in a way that the French were insulted by the prudish Irish Catholic stuff.

Prudery in Irish Catholicism finds its roots to a very large extend in Jansenist ideas, picked up in France where Irish priests were trained prior to the French Revolution.

This Jansenism was reinforced at the first Irish seminary at Maynooth, founded in 1795. It was originally staffed by Irish priests trained in France and French emigres fleeing the revolution.

paterfacio
2022 years ago

“One of the often overlooked aspects of Jesus is that he was a born storyteller and poet”

Was he? Or should this apply to the people who wrote and translated the books of the NT through the centuries?

Kim
Kim
2022 years ago

paterfacio, spot on.

We have no access to Jesus’ original logia but only as they were redacted through handing down oral tradition and through the evangelists a generation later.

Mark is very lapidary in style and his Jesus is too, while John is the opposite.

I think it’s fair to say that he was a good storyteller though – most source criticism indicates that the parables are very likely to have been Jesus’ own stories (but there is no way of knowing which words he used).

Kim
Kim
2022 years ago

oh, and blank, in Australia we now have Jensenism!

Naomi
Naomi
2022 years ago

Do you honestly think that the Protestants are devoid of emotionalism? There’s a gigantic tradition of emotional poetry from Anglicans in England and Lutherans in Germany for instance. What about the hallmarks of Victorian piety, such as the tradition of the Good Death. I’m a severely lapsed Catholic, but my in-laws are from a long line of Presbyterian-Uniting and adored literature and emotion. Beware the tentacles of sectarianism, it’s too easy to make sweeping statements and dismiss the other side of things.

The points you make about the diferent orders and the geographical differences in the expression of Catholicism are also evident at class level. Working class Catholicism is much more emotional and tribal than that of the upper classes – Christian Brothers vs Jesuits, or Josephites vs Good Sams – it reflects its constituency. Filipinos do Catholicism very differently to the equally devout Austrians. It’s a broad church, one of the things I love about it (but it’s not the only broad church).

Sophie – a new book called God’s Willing Workers has just been done about women religious. You might get a lot out of it.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Naomi, I was certainly not meaning to be sectarian. I guess in regards to what you say, I was more talking about the Church of England today, in Britain(which is why I talked of ‘established Protestantism’)and that does come also from my husband, who was brought up C of E, in England, and that’s what he says too, plus what I’ve observed of Anglicanism in general in the UK today, and Australia, in part(tho’ Jensen and co seem to be changing that here.) I totally agree that there are many Protestants, whether Anglican or not, who don’t at all conform to this. Certainly all the evangelical varieties don’t.
And of course there’s a great deal of intellectualism in the Catholic church, some of it very arid indeed. And there are many varieties within it. However, emotion is still a general trend within the Catholic Church.
Also, I do think one of the general points one can make about the Reformation is that because it emerged from humanism–which sought to put reason in the service of God–an emphasis on logic and reason is a strong aspect of the original thinkers at the heart of Protestantism, and a revolt against the mass emotion of the church(plus of course, revolt against central authority, and a wish to reposition the scriptures, at the centre, ditching the catechism with its extras and all the extra imagery symbol and ritual that had grown up over the ages).
I think it’s very interesting now to see that emotion is fast becoming the most important aspect of religion; it is a development that will bring the churches closer together in spirit, if not formally(for the Pope will never be accepted by the majority of other Xtians, whether Protestant or Orthodox). Look for instance at the response to The Passion, a film drenched in Catholic religious imagery and understandings, including a very woman-centred aspect focused on Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magadelene, as well as blood and sacrifice–yet it had an appeal that cut across all denominations; look too at the extraordinary response to the death of the Pope. It doesn’t mean the world is going to turn Catholic, or that the Catholics will grow stronger or anything else; I just think it may mean that Catholic religious imagery is in temper with our times of mass emotion, whether deep or shallow. Where it will go, I have no way of knowing.

Naomi
Naomi
2022 years ago

I’m afraid I find that too simplistic for my taste. I don’t think that Luther was any less emotional, he was chasing his own ideals of purity, which is more subtle. There was a certain asceticism in most Protestant movements but they attracted people who were willing to die for their heresy in order to be freed of the outrageous landed and liquid wealth and power of the Church at that time (a fairly emotional response methinks). Prior to the reformation there had been vast cycles of reform, from intellectualism to mysticism and back again, which purged corruption and generally threw up new orders (Benedictines, Franciscans etc) and new philosophies. The Reformation simply differed in its outcome, rather than its motivations (you can exclude Bloody Henry from that analysis). Vatican II – which ditched a lot of symbolism and the barrier of language – was just such a reform.

I think this pope – and Mel – captured some aspects of the zeitgeist by focusing on Mary for instance, and embracing simple piety (like saints). But there’s a world of forgotten issues, like women’s actual position in the church and society, like contraception etc., that have been theologically fortified. Let’s see what the Cardinals do next!

Kim
Kim
2022 years ago

Naomi, there’s a saying in the Vatican that “a fat pope follows a thin pope”. In other words, you often get someone quite unexpected – as JP II was after Paul VI (JP I wasn’t there long enough to make an impact). The rush to de facto canonisation and the hyperbole about the Pope’s contribution reflects a campaign to embed his theological conservatism.

But we should never forget that the motto “ecclesia semper reformanda” is a Catholic one. Much of what is now perceived as tradition – for instance, the Tridentine Mass, was radical innovation in its day – it supplanted many local and Monastic rites. The pre-reformation Church in Italy celebrated the liturgy according to the Sarum rite for instance (good form of service for exorcism in there btw…).

It’s precisely because Catholicism believes in the progressive revelation of doctrine and because the Bible is not the sole arbiter of faith that the Church is capable of endless surprises.

Mel may have captured the zeitgeist, but his glorification of suffering was horrendous theologically.

Kim
Kim
2022 years ago

That should read:

“The pre-Reformation church in *England* celebrated the liturgy according to the Sarum Rite”

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I think the Reformation was a more unique and profound change than you credit, Naomi. The Reformers, driven at least in part by the wealth-generation imperatives of aggressive mercantilism, essentially rejected the old Church because they found its sacramentals, good works, etc. too burdensome (Steve Ozment, a historian very influential when was at uni 15 years ago) called this ‘the burden of medieval piety’.

The Catholic environment of late medieval Europe was very disordered, despite the appearance of control implied by the highly hierarchical nature of the church. The divine was immanent in and accessible through a range of chaotic and uncontrollable things – pilgrimages, relics, shrines, saints, rites, etc.

The Reformation corralled all that wildness and made access to the divine a matter of faith alone (Luther’s ‘sola fides’). In other words, it was not something to be supplicated by prayer or bought by good works. this, of course, left the good merchants and burgomasters plenty of time and energy to go off making money.

Ascetiscm is certainly a strong hallmark of the Reformed Church. (One could point to Bach and ask how ascetic is his Mass in B Minor, perhaps, but then he was a genius and they have their own rules.) In the wake of the reformation, in England, for example, the strongest proponents of the Reformed faith were the Puritans – who went on to colonise America.

In general, the Reformed were individual, ascetic and contemplative in the practice of their faith, rather than communal, celebratory and ecstatic. In that sense religious practice to them was more of a family affair or at most a sombre procession than a carnival, if you get my meaning. A tired cliche now, of course, but it was like the opposition of Apollo and Dionysius: chaos versus order.

It’s true, as you say, that much Victorian High Church religiosity was ’emotional’ – think of Christina’s Rosetti’s marvellous poems – but it’s a totally different kind of ’emotion’ from that of, say, St John of the Cross, which is much more sensual, incantatory and ecstatic.

Neither side had a monopoly on either persecution or martyrdom. Plenty of Catholics were martyred during the reign of the Protestant Tudors – they still can’t assume the throne, as we are currently being constantly reminded – and and whole communities of French Protestants (Huguenots) were persecuted by Catholics.

C.L.
2022 years ago

Lovely account Sophie. Regarding art, I remember Les Murray saying somewhere that it was the pictures he loved in Catholicism.

Zoe
Zoe
2022 years ago

He had a better run than my mum, then. All the nudes in the art books at her school had vests and undies drawn on in texta.

Wonder what you had to do to get that job?

David Tiley
2022 years ago

I would prefer to say that religion and life has its Apollonic and Dionysian strands, which work their way through any institution.

After all, the English fought a Civil War which had as its symbols the ascetic Roundheads and decadent Cavaliers, both strands in Protestantism.

It is pretty hard to say that anyone’s faith is bloodless, unemotional and economically driven when they are burnt at the stake for it.

I know everyone is dealing in the simplifications of a comment, but the origins of religious change, and the personal basis of faith are inherently complicated.

Sure Protestantism was made possible by the collaboration of secular authority, and Anglicanism was triggered by Tudor political problems. And the sacking of the monasteries was a piece of gross artistic barbarism. But the fact is that there was a huge movement for reform of the most sincere kind, which did react against the overt display of Popery and the Cult of the Saints, but which was a sincere and deeply emotional search for the God of the Bible.

As was the defence of the Catholic Church by those families which stuck to it, as in say the Catholic families of England.

Having said that, I have my own grotesque political simplification, which I would defend (though not to the death).

Seek out the wowsers, confront them, and drive them from the machinery of power! They get in everywhere.

mark
2022 years ago

Absolutely, David. Larrikins of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but a lifetime of being chastised for chain-smoking…

Sophie, I enjoyed your post (and Tim’s, come to that) very much. Thank you.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

“I would prefer to say that religion and life has its Apollonic and Dionysian strands, which work their way through any institution.”

David, I have sometimes thought that a secular reading of the Crucifixion might be the eternal conflict of the Dionysian (the horizontal bar) and the Apollonian (the vertical), with the Son of Man/Son of God pinned between the two. I mean no disrespect to the religious in saying that.

(BTW, I fell asleep during the funeral of the Pope, again entirely without disrespect, despite being moved at times, due to the boring nature of the music. Some phrases were reminiscent of Durufle’s great Requiem but for the rest….A tasteless remark I daresay.)

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

The great treasures of Gregorian chant! How could you, Rob? Bloody infidel! :)

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Over at LP, we’ve been talking about nothing but the Pope’s funeral, Rob. I mean C.L. has been talking about nothing but the Pope’s funeral. :)

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Welll, I’ll defer to others better versed (if that’s the word) in Gregorian chant, but there was on piece repeated over and over than sounded like the first phrase from ‘El Condor Paso’, and the ‘Credo! Credo!’ thing didn’t sound like chant to me. Faux chant, maybe. But I’m no expert.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

I wish they would have had Mozart’s Requiem or Faure’s.
Imagine it!
Would have been splendid and grave and beautiful.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

jen, I think Durufle modelled his Requiem on Faure’s. Both are lovely, though Durufle’s is rather more austere.

Piece of non-trivia: somewhere else on Troppo the abominable Negri’s appropriation of St Francis of Asissi came up. The ‘original’ requiem was written by Tomaso de Celano, St Francis’ first biographer.

(…..unless I’m much mistaken).

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

David’s catch cry is like many. Tempting to follow but then you look around and find you are standing next to Bob Ellis. I hate a wowswer but I hate Bob Ellis more.

Larrikins are over-rated.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Lets face it, being an ex-catholic is a cult in itself.

Brownie
Brownie
2022 years ago

I never hear or read of anyone saying ‘I am a lapsed Presbyterian’……